LA Angels Single-A Inland Empire 66’ers has some hidden gems.

April 3, 2016; Anaheim, CA, USA; Los Angeles Angels catcher Taylor Ward (99) and pitcher Javy Guerra celebrate the 6-4 victory against Chicago Cubs at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
April 3, 2016; Anaheim, CA, USA; Los Angeles Angels catcher Taylor Ward (99) and pitcher Javy Guerra celebrate the 6-4 victory against Chicago Cubs at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports /

Stop me if you heard this before. The LA Angels have the worst farm system in the Majors…  The last two to three years we have heard this refrain which can be disheartening to Angels fans.  Is it as bad as people make it out to be?

Since the LA Angels had so many injuries in 2016 the Angels farm system was tested and many players that were called up did pretty well.  Guys like Jefry Marte, Jett Bandy, Kaleb Cowart, Nick Buss, and Gregorio Petit helped hold things together despite the injuries.  Marte and Petit however were guys signed or acquired in the off-season so they cannot be considered products of the Angels system.

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So how do the lower levels look for the Angels?  In Double-A team had a few top prospects on the Arkansas Travelers team mostly on the pitching side.  First and foremost was Alex Blackford, a player who spent all of 2015 playing for the Inland Empire 66’ers with mixed results, but in 2016 he broke out in Arkansas and could be up in the majors before too long. Blackford looked very good  in 2016 going 9-7 with a 3.07 ERA with a 1.114 WHIP striking out 105 batters in 111.1 innings.

Eduardo Paredes is a lefty reliever who split time with Inland Empire and Arkansas and pitched very well going 1-5 with a 3.33 ERA with 12 saves.  Paredes had 75 strikeouts in 70.1 innings with a 1.194 WHIP.  What was most impressive was he held his opponents to a .167 batting average. Finally right-handed starter Jordan Kipper looked really good as well.  He was most known for making the Double-A All-Star team and threw a near perfect game, but settled for a no-hitter on May 17th.  Overall Kipper went 12-7 with a 3.35 ERA striking out 85 batters in 153 innings.

Now in Single-A Inland Empire I had the pleasure of watching some very good players who could make an impact for the Angels in the years to come. Since the Angels had so many players doing rehab assignments in Single-A I made the trip to San Bernardino and other nearby cities to watch current Angels try to work they way back to the majors.  However, I also paid attention to the players on the 66’ers team who were busting their butts every day in hopes of one day making it to the majors.

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So here are the prospects for 66’ers that caught my eye as well as some season-ending comments by the players themselves.

One player most fans have heard about is #3 prospect catcher Taylor Ward.  I watched Ward play six times this season three times he was catching Angels pitchers on rehab assignments including Tyler Skaggs, Joe Smith, and C.J. Wilson. Ward’s defense was always stellar every game throwing out multiple runners trying to steal and blocking a lot of balls most catchers wouldn’t.  Ward has drawn a lot of praise from the likes of Wilson and Skaggs as well manager Mike Scioscia.

“He is a young kid he stuck a few tough pitches that I threw in the dirt that most young guys would have trouble with,” Wilson said after Ward caught his rehab assignment.

“I worked with Taylor in Spring Training and in my rehab start. He did a very good job and was easy to work with,” Skaggs said upon his return to Anaheim. “He also has a cannon for an arm. He’s going to be a good one.”

“Taylor’s making great progress down there in San Bernardino, his defense is very good and he is starting to come around at the plate,” Scioscia said.

Ward finished his time with Inland Empire this season with a sparkling .993 fielding percentage with five errors in 783 chances. He also threw out 48 of 77 would-be base stealers which is a 38% clip.  Not bad numbers for the Angels 2015 top draft pick. On the offensive side Ward hit .249 for the season with 10 home runs and 56 RBI’s.  He is definitely one to keep your eye on.

“Catching is really big and defensively feel I had a good first year, I learned a lot and I will continue working to get better and build on this season’s experiences,” Ward said. “Offensively I need  to work on some things like driving the ball.”

As for his future in baseball Ward has high hopes. “Having a lot of guys here rehabbing was really helpful to me. They told us things that helped them on their way up to the majors and were very helpful to us having them down here,” Ward said. “My goal is to make the Spring training roster and be there as long as I can and hopefully earn a spot on a higher level team.  Eventually I hope to make it up to the big leagues that is the ultimate goal and I’m going to keep working hard to achieve it.”

Personally I really hope to see Taylor Ward catching for the Angels in the future.  He possesses great skills defensively and I think his offense will come around as he gains more experience. In addition he may be most genuine nice guy I have ever come across in all my years of sports writing.  Ward makes you feel like your a friend as well even when you first meet him. No matter if he had a 4 for 4 performance or 0 for 4 with four strikeouts he was always polite and willing to talk with me and never made me feel like I was wasting his time. Good luck in the Arizona Fall League Taylor!!!

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David Fletcher was another player who caught my eye early in the season until he was called up to Double-A in July. Fletcher hit .280 with three homers and 37 RBI’s  and he also stole 16 bases. Defensively he was stellar making four errors in 275 chances for a .985 fielding percentage.  He can play both second base and shortstop and could be an answer to the Angels needs at second base in a season or two.

“I haven’t set any long-term goals for myself, I just trying to work hard and keep improving each day,” Fletcher said. “I’m just trying to do the best that I can and whatever happens will happen. Shortstop I have played my whole life, but I trying to learn and get better every day at second base and I’m starting to get more comfortable each game I play there.”

Another infielder to keep an eye on who’s name may have a familiar ring to it is infielder Hutton Moyer (son of retired pitcher Jamie Moyer). Moyer had an outstanding year for the 66’ers and made a lot of progress both at the plate and in the field.  Moyer started the year at Burlington before being promoted to Inland Empire and combined he hit .276 with 17 homers and 72 RBI’s.  He also stole 13 bases and had a respectable .341 OBP.

Moyer said having a dad who played in the majors definitely has helped him going through his career thus far. “We grew up around it which has helped us for sure, but my dad taught us we can learn something from anybody good or bad so I’m always trying to pick anything up I can from players around me,” Moyer said. “When things get tough I know I have someone who I can go to if I need some advice and that’s great to have.”

Another player that caught my eye was left-handed starter Justin Anderson.  While Anderson had some tough moments this season and his numbers don’t show it, he is a pitcher that I believe you will be hearing about in the next few years. Anderson started 27 games for the 66’ers and had a record of 8-12 with a 5.70 ERA striking out 107 batters in 145 innings.  However, Anderson had a 1.658 WHIP allowing 193 hits and walking 51 batters in those 145 innings.

When I watched him pitch three different times all later in the season he looked like he was figuring things out.  In two of those three starts he went six innings allowing two runs and one run and striking 5 an 7 batters respectively.  The other game Anderson came in relief of Joe Smith after he had worked the first inning as part of his rehab.  Anderson pitched into the seventh and gave up three runs in that time. In August Anderson had a 3-1 record with a 2.75 ERA  in 36 innings of work pitching seven innings in three starts and five innings in the other three starts.

Anderson was pleased with his progress this season, but also knows he still has a lot of work to do.

“My goal this year was to work hard and keep learning and kind of master my craft,” Anderson said. “The first half was a little rough and got off to a bad start, but he second half I was able to start putting things together in the second half especially in this month of August I was able to put some things together.  I was able to do the things I wanted to do and had some success doing that. I put a lot of pressure on myself especially in the first half, and then second half I just let go and let the higher power take over for me. I just continued to work had and trust in His plan and great things can happen when you do that.”

The final player that caught my eye I only saw pitch twice before he was promoted to Double-A and then again to Triple-A and that was right-handed reliever Kenyan Middleton.  Middleton threw very hard out of the bullpen topping out at 98 miles per hour.  He also had a lot of poise and composure for a guy who was only 22 years old at the time I saw him. Middleton finished the year 3-1 with a 3.41 ERA with 88 strikeouts in 66 innings with a 1.136 WHIP.  He will have a good chance going into Spring Training to gain a roster spot in the 2017 Angels bullpen.

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So the next time you hear someone say that the Angels have the worst farm system in baseball you can tell them “You can’t always judge a book by its cover” or also “Seeing is believing”.  I am not a baseball scout , but I do feel I know the game pretty well and I think there is definitely some talent down in the Angels Minor League system, I think fans just need to be patient and you will see some these players I mentioned up in the majors and performing admirably.